Director of Brand and Experience Leading Edge Coaching Ltd
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The anxious leader: why good leadership is about authenticity, not confidence

We are living through unpredictable and challenging times and anxiety is a natural response to this situation. What’s unnatural is the way many leaders try to project confidence when they are feeling anything but. To come up with constructive solutions right now, what’s needed is authenticity.

25th Aug 2020
Director of Brand and Experience Leading Edge Coaching Ltd
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Mature male hospital administrator listens to concerns during a conference with medical staff.
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Raise your hand if you’re an anxious leader? Perhaps it’s a difficult question to answer. Who wants to be labelled ‘anxious’?  How would we react if our political leaders were deemed ‘anxious’ while managing our Covid-19 response, or if our health experts appeared nervous and uncertain in their presentation of data and plans?

Do we judge capability and leadership on ‘steady handedness’ and certainty?  If so, do we subconsciously value confidence over authenticity?

Effective leaders know that being authentic makes sense, but being authentic requires us to reveal more of ourselves. 

Anxiety defined is ‘feeling or showing worry, nervousness or unease about something with an uncertain outcome’. The Covid-19 situation can certainly be defined as a situation with ‘uncertain outcome’ on both a macro or micro scale. The return to work from furlough, the introduction of new working practices, the unknown scale of the impact of the coronavirus on the economic flow for business – if those realities don’t bring some level of anxiety for managers and leaders, I’d be surprised.

If we are feeling anxious and uncomfortable and we’re not able to share those feelings and concerns, can we say we are truly being authentic?

Authenticity matters

Authenticity is one of three constant leadership tensions (alongside ‘find ways to win’ and being ‘in the service of others’). Being inauthentic leads to an ‘over indexing’ into the other two tensions, often resulting in a burnt-out shell of a leader, with a disenfranchised team, driven solely by the transient nature of ‘chasing the results’. It’s an old school version of leadership, with the leader positioned as the indestructible, knowledge king, deflecting all manner of challenges from aloft their white charger, without revealing a single chink in their armour.

Effective leaders know that being authentic makes sense, but being authentic requires us to reveal more of ourselves. That doesn’t just mean stories from the weekend, or sharing our career timelines at team building events.  Authenticity needs us to be willing to be vulnerable. We must be willing to put our hand up and say, ‘I don’t know how this is going to pan out’, ‘we’re in unchartered territory and this may not work’, and ‘I’m concerned too’.

future L&D leaders hub link

Anxiety and the comfort zone

In a recent PWC podcast discussing anxiety, Dr Rob Archer said, “we can’t stop ourselves feeling anxious, but we can prepare for how we respond to it”.  That struck a chord with me. Giving ourselves permission to know that anxiety is a natural state – it’s often the dark-sided twin of ‘excitement’.

It lives in the place beyond the comfort zone, where we are in the ‘stretch zone’.  In fact, in her book Danger in the Comfort Zone, Judith Bardwick describes the stretch zone as, “a behavioural state where a person operates in an anxiety neutral position”.

You could argue that unless you are feeling either anxious or excited, you’re simply sitting in the comfort zone – and that’s a dangerously passive place to be when the world around you in changing at such a pace.

Embracing anxiety

So how can we value our anxiety, and then focus on energy on how we respond to it?

  • Don’t ignore, acknowledge. Listen carefully to your anxiety to ensure you’ve acknowledged it, give yourself time to consider it (not days or weeks), maybe name it, and don’t try to quash it. Recognise it as simply a ‘reaction’.
     
  • Dig deep to really get under it. Question and probe the anxiety and its root causes, not just it’s surface level presentation. This is where the balance of time should be.

When you’re confident you have captured the anxiety and really identified its cause, consciously move to a proactive phase – focus on your response.  What do I need? What can I control?  Who can help me?

We’re back to that word vulnerability again. Unless you’re still running the old school ‘leader as knowledge king’ format, you’ll already know and value the input of others. Embrace and value that input here.

How to be a vulnerable leader

  • Acknowledge your anxiety and explore its causes. Frame the anxiety as a ‘reaction’ and move to define the controllables.
     
  • Share your anxiety in the context of ‘here’s what I’m working through’ with others around you. (There’s immense value in ‘leader going first’ in matters of role modelling trust and vulnerability).
     
  • Ask for help. Recognise the skills, behaviours, attitude and aptitude others have, and choose to investigate them. Ask questions of inquiry that enable you to spot the tools that could add to your leadership toolkit, such as ‘how are you doing that?’; ‘what’s your approach to this?’; ‘tell me about… ‘; ‘how would you…?’
     
  • Recognise anxiety in others. It’s often misnamed as ‘negativity’. Use your coaching skills to move conversations into and beyond the extraversion of the anxiety, and encourage a focus on the exploration of possible responses.

Rather than silencing our feelings of anxiousness, authentic leaders see anxiety as a useful warning light on your personal dashboard. Its purpose is to give a warning, an indicator of something. What you choose to do in response to that warning is what will say more about your leadership.  

Interested in this topic? Read Connected leadership: holding up the mirror to develop self-awareness.

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